Egyptian court adjourns NGOs trial; foreigners absent from proceedings

Forty-three foreign and are set to go on trial today in a politically charged case which has set off a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington. (Reuters)

The chief judge in Egypt’s trial of dozens of pro-democracy activists, including Americans, on charges of receiving illegal funding adjourned the case to April 26 after the trial began on Sunday.

Most of the 43 accused did not attend the first hearing in the packed Cairo suburb courtroom. One defendant told AFP during a court recess that the 14 defendants who did show up were all Egyptian.

A prosecutor in the court in a Cairo suburb read out the charges against the defendants, saying their alleged acceptance of the illicit funds had “detracted from the sovereignty of the Egyptian state.”

They are also accused of operating their groups illegally.

An AFP correspondent said the 14 defendants who did appear denied they had committed crimes when asked by the judge.

Each one answered the judge in Arabic, and one defendant told AFP during a recess that the defendants in the court’s black metal cage were all Egyptian.

After the brief hearing, the judge adjourned the trial to April 26, allowing the defendants who had appeared in court released until then. The first hearings in Egyptian trials usually allow the defendants to register their pleas and lawyers to make their demands.

Judicial sources said that along with 19 Americans, the remaining defendants were Norwegian, German, Serbian, Egyptian, Palestinian and Jordanian.

The politically charged case has set off a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington and threatened $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.

The 43 foreign and Egyptian non-profit workers - including the son of the U.S. transportation secretary - are accused of receiving illegal funds from abroad and carrying out political activities unrelated to their civil society work.

A senior U.S. official said Washington and Cairo were holding what he described as “intense discussions” to resolve the crisis within days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in the Moroccan capital after visits to Algeria and Tunisia, has met Egypt’s foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr twice in the last three days, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Rights campaigners say the case is retaliation by Egypt’s ruling generals against pro-democracy groups that have been among the army’s harshest critics since it took power when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown a year ago.

“The whole basis of this case is unfair,” an Egyptian activist working for one of the organizations told Reuters.

It was unclear whether all of the accused - who are banned from leaving Egypt pending trial - would appear in court.

A number of them were already abroad when the ban was placed, and some of those who remained in Egypt have taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

The U.S. pro-democracy groups whose staff have been charged deny they have done anything illegal. They say the crackdown is an attempt by Egypt’s military rulers to derail democracy.

Egypt says the case is a judicial matter and all groups must heed Egyptian law.

Negad al-Borai, a lawyer representing the accused in Cairo, said the charges referred only to a short period in the groups’ activities and could therefore be argued against.

“The charges made involve only the period from March 2011 to December 2011,” he told Reuters. “These groups have applied for permits before that period.”

Some Egyptian officials have linked the funding of civil society initiatives to a U.S. plot to undermine Egypt’s sovereignty - accusations the United States and the civil society workers deny.

Among those accused is Sam LaHood, Egypt director of the International Republican Institute and the son of the U.S. transportation secretary.

The government and the ruling military council say the case was initiated by the judiciary and is out of their hands.

However, on Saturday a senior U.S. official said talks are underway in Cairo to resolve the issue “within days.”

“Intense discussions (are being held) with the Egyptians to try to resolve the situation within days,” the official said.

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